The shape of things to come

By | Science & Technology
Components possibly made of biopolymers in the future Credit @ Thomas Bresson via Flickr.com

All the devices used every day are made up of electronic components. Semiconductors and wiring and other electrical mechanisms enable modern appliances and electronics to make our everyday tasks, much more convenient. These small components are manufactured in factories all over the world, and the plastics and metals are used in these components are rarely recycled after the device has become obsolete. There seems to be a demand for electronic components and although these parts are mass produced, having another method for creating such elements may ease the pressure of the increasing demands. Scientists are investigating the possibility of producing plastics and other materials may be used in these small parts being produced organically, and maybe in the future controlling them with their switch-like functions.

Bioengineering has been investigated for many years, and the possibility of being able to create such materials from cells of living materials has been an interest to materials scientists all over the world. Cells pass chemical signals much like electrical devices with electronic pulses do, and this characteristic is essential for use in technology. Scientists have been able to harness this, allowing biological circuit boards to be created. Scientists are also learning to programme the cells to grow to their own specifications making it easier for mass production. Biopolymers have been made using genes which have been specifically programmed for the desired effect. One example of this in the natural world is a spider’s web. These threads are one of the strongest materials known, and spiders have adapted to produce this biopolymer for their specific needs. This seems to be what scientists are doing within a laboratory environment.

Spiders Web Credit @ Cybershot Dude via Flickr.com

Spiders Web Credit @ Cybershot Dude via Flickr.com

The signals being produced might cause bacteria to release proteins from the cells. Combining these qualities has allowed cells to release these proteins which may be programmed to behave and structure themselves as required. When developed, this technique may be used to make small parts for computers and other electrical devices such as wiring, and also to control them via electronic signals. The cells are also able to function much like a switch in an electrical circuit, so the chemical information may be controlled by the surrounding cells with minimal input from scientists or manufacturers alike. This may be a step forward in bioengineering, and might lead to a number of new possibilities. Scientists are aiming, in the future components may be able to be manufactured this way, and the whole device from the inside out. This may reduce the amount of waste from when the separate parts are made industrially in a factory.

Only basic materials are able to be made this way at present, although in the future with an improved understanding into the process and how the cells react to the foreign bodies, more complex materials may be possible and therefore a larger range of components might be manufactured this way. More complex functions may also be possible if developments in the field continue.

There may be a number of productive outcomes to this development, including the reduction of waste created in the manufacturing process, and reduced pressure to supply and demand from plastic and metal stores. The development of these techniques may also enable us to learn more about what cells are capable of and how else we may use these occurrences to our advantages, both industrially and scientifically.

What other uses might there be with materials made this way?

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